Welcome folks! Rivals of Ixalan is finally here and we at Team Axion Now have been busy working out the new format for Grand Prix London. Here are our initial thoughts on the draft format and what you should look out for in each colour combination.
We begin with a colour combination that was poorly supported in the previous draft format. So poorly in fact that they didn’t even print a ‘signpost uncommon’ for it. This has now been remedied in Rivals of Ixalan with Resplendent Griffin and it tells us all we need to know about the colour combination. Resplendent Griffin showcases one of the new keywords from the set, Ascend, an ability that upgrades your cards when you control ten or more permanents. In Blue and White you have a few ways to create board states where you have ten or more permanents faster and more readily than in a normal game of Magic. For example, you can play Treasure creators such as Sailor of Means or other token generators such as Squire’s Devotion and Queen’s Commission. In addition to this, the White and Blue removal cards are predominantly Enchantments that stay around on the battlefield. These pull double duty in removing a creature from your opponent's board whilst adding to your permanent count.
The second part of Resplendent Griffin is Flying and this points towards the classic Blue-White Fliers strategy. Blue in particular has a lot of cheap evasive threats such as Kitesail Corsair, Siren Reaver and Slippery Scoundrel (once you Ascend) that help you kill your opponent effectively whilst you disrupt their game plan with bounce spells and tricks.
This is the other colour pairing that saw no support in the previous draft format and it also has a new “signpost uncommon” in the form of Jungle Creeper. Jungle Creeper is a little more difficult to decipher in terms of telling you what to do in the format. It is a solid rate at 3/3 for 3 mana and it has a recursive effect that makes it very difficult to deal with completely. The theme is subtle but it suggests that Green-Black wants to take a grindy midrange role utilising the great removal in Black such as Moment of Craving and Impale backed up by beefy creatures that can gum up the board and eventually overpowering your opponent with superior creature-sizing and card quality.
White-Black in Rivals of Ixalan is much like White-Black from the previous set, where the primary goal was to draft a critical mass of Vampires with some pump effects. In Ixalan, the payoffs were cards such as Anointed Deacon and Pirate's Cutlass, whereas in Rivals you are looking for Legion Lieutenant, Forerunner of the Legion or even Sanguine Glorifier. Exultant Skymarcher and Squire’s Devotion both serve as great replacements for the Skymarch Bloodletters and Mark of the Vampires from the previous set, and Martyr of Dusk gives the deck another solid two drop. Unfortunately for Vampires the best of the white cards are going to be contested by even the non-Vampire White decks, making it more difficult to assemble the Legion. This deck may have to lean harder on cards that shouldn't be highly prioritised by other drafters, such as Voracious Vampire and the aforementioned Sanguine Glorifier.
Blue-Green Merfolk was arguably the best tribe in the last set but it has lost two packs of Jade Guardian and One with the Wind, lowering the deck’s power somewhat. However, there are still a lot of nice new cards in Rivals to fill those roles. First and foremost, there is Merfolk Mistbinder that provides the powerful effect of pumping all your other Merfolk for just two mana. When paired with cards such as Jungleborn Pioneer it can generate a pretty big board state quite quickly. Additionally, Crashing Tide offers a very nice incentive to play with Merfolk as it offers you a functional reprint of the card Repulse, which is just excellent in Limited.
In Ixalan, the payoffs such as River Heralds' Boon and Jade Guardian tended to float around later because only dedicated Merfolk drafters really wanted them. The better cards for the deck in Rivals, on the other hand, are cards that other Blue and Green drafters may also want, giving me the impression that Merfolk is in a weaker spot than it was previously.
Blue-Black Pirates is the most controlling variant of Pirates utilising the best of the black removal whilst pecking away at your opponent with evasive Blue creatures. As we’ve touched upon previously, Blue has access to many Ascend enabling cards such as Sailor of Means and Prosperous Pirates that generate Treasure tokens when they enter the battlefield. Along with the fact that Blue-Black has the tools to drag the game out longer than other colours, reaching Ascend with these colours shouldn't be incredibly difficult. This makes cards such as Dusk Charger, Spire Winder and Secrets of the Golden City more appealing as they are more likely to be used to their full potential.
Black-Red Pirates in the previous set was all about the Raid triggers and it continues with its aggressive roots in this set, exemplified by its “signpost uncommon” Dire Fleet Neckbreaker, which pumps your attacking Pirates by +2/+0. The deck has access to some of the best new removal in Moment of Craving and Bombard. This colour combination gives you access to the greatest amount of three mana 3/3s at common with Swaggering Corsair, Dire Fleet Boarder and Headstrong Brute from Ixalan. Despite seeming quite beefy, however, you can be easily brickwalled by x/4s or even just multiple 2/2s from your opponent. This means a higher priority should be placed on cards that help you break through, such as Pirate’s Cutlass, the aforementioned Dire Fleet Neckbreaker or even Strider Harness.
Blue-Red is the new Raid Pirate colour combination with toys such as Siren Reaver and Deadeye Rig-Hauler. Kitesail Corsair and Goblin Trailblazer make excellent evasive two-drops to enable attacking as soon as possible. Unlike Black-Red, the blue cards offer you more evasion alongside bounce spells to get around your opponent’s best blockers whilst still having access to premium removal in Bombard and Waterknot. Buccaneer's Bravado can also really shine in this colour combination as a pseudo Lava Axe.
Red-Green is a midrange aggro deck utilising Dinosaurs and Enrage synergies. Forerunner of the Empire is excellent at both tutoring up Dinosaurs with Enrage and also triggering them. Of the many new options, Needletooth Raptor is probably the strongest as it can effectively machine gun down your opponent’s creatures whilst developing your board. Even without the combo it is still quite effective at getting you two-for-ones. Cards such as Hunt the Weak and Tilonalli’s Crown provide effective ways to trigger Enrage whilst giving your creatures additional power to finish off your opponent. Red-Green is also a good home for Reckless Rage where its drawback can be mitigated, turning it into a cheap and powerful interactive spell.
Green-White Dinosaurs is the slowest of the Dinosaur decks and it wants to gum up the ground with high-toughness creatures such as Cacophodon, Imperial Ceratops or even Snubhorn Sentry. Cards like Thunderherd Migration and Knight of the Stampede allow the deck to ramp up and play expensive Dinosaurs such as Colossal Dreadmaw or Sun-Crested Pteredon earlier than usual to take over the game. Overall, I would prioritise strong, early defensive creatures over the finishers as the higher end will usually come around later. Be aware that your natural predator is the Blue tempo deck as they can effectively get around your blockers and mitigate the effectiveness of White’s Enchantment based removal spells by also bouncing or flickering their own creatures.
Red-White Dinosaurs was probably the most successful of the Dinosaur tribal decks in the previous set, mostly off the back of the absurdness that is Tillonalli’s Knight into Territorial Hammerskull. Unfortunately, unlike other tribal synergy decks, Rivals of Ixalan has not really offered a suitable replacement for this and as such the overall power level of the deck has dropped. In the new format, Red-White Dinosaurs will instead have to lean quite heavily on combat tricks to make up for its much lower quality of creatures. Majestic Heliopterus, a somewhat unimpressive card, may be best in this colour combination where it can take a Frilled Deathspitter to the sky and where it forms a nice curve-out with Stampeding Horncrest.
Overall, I feel Rivals of Ixalan is more varied than Ixalan itself as more controlling decks are viable thanks to cheaper removal which are not just combat tricks and the creature sizing means that at least you can block even if it is heavily discouraged. In addition, there are now fewer packs with One with the Wind and Mark of the Vampire and there are more efficient bounce spells to disincentivise playing Auras that has led to a general slowing down of the format. Having said this, the format is still terrrifyingly quick and it is very easy to fall behind if you do not play anything for the first couple of turns so be wary of building a top heavy curve full of removal as this is the easiest way to lose in the format.
About Tom Law:
Tom has been playing Magic since Odyssey block but took a break between Time Spiral and Dark Ascension. His personal aim in Magic is to become a permanent fixture on the Pro Tour. Similarly, his goal for Team Axion is for it to one day be uttered in the same breath as Channel Fireball or EUreka. His vision for the team when formed was to achieve this through improvement not just for themselves but also thise those around so that Team Axion Now can pull and push each other forward. This is why many members of the team still work fairly closely with their own local “satellite” teams.